Closed on Mondays

As a doctoral student in Ohio State’s School of Public Administration, I became an adherent of Herbert Simon’s theory of satisficing, the process of combining satisfying with sufficing. Google provides an example: you want to pay the least amount for gas, but you wouldn’t drive for miles to find the gas station selling the cheapest gas. As an offshoot of this economic theory, I developed a modus operandi. I satisficed by making many decisions based on imperfect or incomplete information, such as first impressions and gut reactions. My decision to go with what I had rather than investigate further, often as not, did not serve me well.  This is an example of a situation where asking a couple of questions may have made all the difference:

A sign sat in front of the wide stone stairs leading up to the entrance. “Oh no,” my mother sighed. “It says the art museum is ‘CLOSED ON MONDAY.’”

“But there are people walking in,” I objected. “I can see a light on in the gift shop window.”

Mother smiled and started trotting up the thirty broad steps “Come along,” she called.  “Sometimes the gift shop is the best thing about a museum.”

We visited the gift shop and left the premises. On the street, I looked again at the sign: CLOSED ON MONDAYS. “Sad,” I mumbled.

Mother turned to me and I noticed a slight shadow flit across her face. “It’s Tuesday,” she said.

Sometimes it’s just better to take the time to optimize.

So Why Not Eat Black Water Beetles?

Since I am promoting my new travelogue, The Wanderer, which will be published this October, I thought I should tell would-be travelers that they are not obligated to enjoy the local cuisine. I like Russian food. Heck, I like English food. Both cuisines are often trashed by travelers, whereas Sichuan food is coveted everywhere as a phenomenal taste sensation. Personally, I cannot tolerate its spices.

It takes a while to develop a taste for some cuisines and, even if you don’t come to relish them as food, trying them is always an adventure. I recall a visit to Cambodia. My first stop was Mondulkiri, a province along the Northeast border of Cambodia and Vietnam. I was having breakfast in a local hotel. Two small demitasse cups of bitter coffee were stacked in front of me. I fumbled with the wrapper on my gluten-free, kosher halal bar—no trans-fat, sesame and cashew nut protein bar—deliberately taking my time to avoid being overwhelmed by the smells assaulting me from the bowls of sour fish soup, rice and pork, and savory noodles that filled the air of the tiny restaurant. It was too early in my trip, and in the day, to partake in mystery food, although my food exploration improved as the trip continued.

Then in Phnom Penh, my host’s son, Sengte, challenged me to a dinner of A-ping—grilled giant jungle spiders. The spiders are actually native to the forests surrounding the village where I lived and worked while organizing elections for the United Nations in 1993. (I ate ants back then. Ants managed to get into all our food, but I had demurred from the tarantulas.) The legs tasted like fried string. I avoided the belly. A few days later, I was treated by Sengte’s uncle to a bowl of bird’s nest soup.

Twenty dollars a spoonful! It sells for four hundred dollars an ounce, so I ate about four hundred dollars’ worth. The raw material—a bird’s nest found only in caves—comes complete with bits of feathers (and who knows what else), which are then cleaned and scanned to make sure that they are bacteria-free. The soup is reported to make pregnant women strong and their new babies healthy; it’s also supposed to reverse aging. Because of its rarity, it cannot be exported. Forget snorting a fortune in cocaine! You can drink your fortune away with cold bird’s nest soup. I was on a roll with the local cuisine—first spiders, then a bird’s nest. It was a unique experience, but I still looked and felt sixty-seven. I’m pretty sure that one bowl of soup won’t make you young.

Before the trip ended, I had one more culinary adventure. After chewing on the legs of giant jungle spiders and downing a bowl of bird’s nest soup, it seemed almost okay to swallow a boiled black water beetle (better than sipping  out the brains of a live monkey through a straw—another Khmer delicacy that I’ve avoided to this day). I was out on a small lake, Tonlee Battaey, for a picnic with Meng, Sengte’s father. We bought a pot of steamed beetles from a seller in the floating market. After Meng peeled off the hard outer shell and the prickly pincers, it was the time of reckoning. I popped the beetle (the size of a walnut) into my mouth, got one good chew, and swallowed it down. Actually, it was tastier than the spider and reminded me of Louisiana crawfish.

Bon appétit. Try it, you might like it. Then again, who knows?

Queen of the Hill

It was barely dawn. I was on a weekend tour in Mondulkiri with Cambodian friends, Kimsore and Sopheap, along with their NGO colleagues. It was a staff retreat, and I was included since I was staying in Phnom Penh as my friends’ houseguest. I was soon reminded why I hated tours and preferred to travel alone. The knocking started at 6:15 a.m. “Madam, are you ready?” asked an unknown voice. “Ou-tee!” I shouted “no” in Khmer from under the covers. I punched an indentation in the pillow, turned over, and closed my eyes. More knocking. “Madam, may I take your suitcase?” “No, not ready.” The knocking switched to banging on the door. “Madam, can you come on bus #2? You can change your bus when we are at the restaurant.” Throwing off the covers and resigning myself to getting up, I responded, “Yes, yes, I can. Aut panyaha, no problem.”

No coffee in the quiet of my bed, alone in semi-darkness. No caffeine to work its magical opening of my vascular system and starting my body to function properly. By the time I got outside, bus #1, not #2, was waiting for me. If anyone was angry about having to wait for their breakfast, there was not a clue on their smiling faces. After all, I was the guest, the founder of the NGO, the g-d mother of their bosses! The children smiled up at me shyly—not sure whether I was completely human, given my pale skin and light hair. Their gazes reminded me of how I look at chimpanzees in the zoo—recognizing something human in their faces and behaviors.

However, once breakfast was finished, I left the tour. Sopheap and Kimsore had arranged for the three of us to visit an ethnic indigenous people’s village to ride elephants through the lush mountain jungles on a full-day trip. For the first half of our trek, I rode in the small cradle on the elephant’s back, but on our return to the village, I sat atop the goliath’s head. I could feel his shoulders move rhythmically under my butt as he plodded slowly along the jungle path! I was Queen of the Hill—Angelina Jolie on an adventure to find ancient treasures. I was at least eight feet off the ground, the chill mountain air kissing my face and cooling my body. It felt good to be out of the small riding basket that cramped my legs, put my feet to sleep, and hurt my already painful knees that were tired and sore from having used Asian squat toilets for days.  

Suddenly I pitched forward. The slope of the terrain changed, and the big, one-hundred-year-old beast started down a small slope. I leaned forward with no saddle, no stirrups, and not even a halter to hold on to. I screamed for Kimsore to hold my shirt. He hollered back that it wouldn’t help. I stopped breathing as I imagined myself toppling over and getting crushed under the large feet of the plodding beast.

“Carole, come back to the basket,” Kimsore called out. “What? Stand up while we are going downhill?—Are you crazy?” No, but I must be crazy, at seventy years old, to ride on an elephant in the jungle! What was I thinking?  I was stuck, too terrified to turn around to climb back into the safety of the basket. The mahout, the elephant driver, motioned for me to move further down onto the head of the elephant, where there was a natural indentation between the shoulders and the skull. I inched forward, repeating a single mantra: breathe, just breathe. Kimsore let go of my shirt, so I tried to hold on to the tough leathery skin but couldn’t gain any purchase. Eventually, I sucked in the cold air, straightened my back, and rode! Although it felt like forever, it was more likely just a few minutes until the ground evened out, flat and easy. I was okay, perched solidly upon the big beast’s head.  I rode into the village more alive than I could remember. 

The tour got me to Mondulkiri, my friends got me to the village, and the elephant took me on an adventure of a lifetime.

The Golden Mean in the Age of Covid-19

Aristotle established the concept of the Golden Mean 2,500 years ago. Simply put, the middle path—or moderation—is the correct choice for right behavior and making good decisions. During this pandemic, we Americans are choosing between extreme options and moderate ones. On one side of the continuum is an extreme option: shutting down the economy, curtailing most social interaction, and maintaining maximum isolation. These steps are necessary in some places, but not in others. The other extreme is doing nothing, and carrying on as if the coronavirus were not real.

The moderate option is social distancing, frequent, systematic testing and monitoring, and wearing masks or face shields. All of these measures could be enhanced or relaxed as required. Businesses could modify how they service their clientele, or find ways for employees to tele-work. With the moderate choice, schools could turn to remote learning while they develop pedagogy for virtual education and create flexible, blended models that could adapt to the virus threat. 

The problem is that, if you choose one option and I choose the other, neither of us wins. If you dismiss even modest precautions, eventually you will get sick and/or infect someone else. Soon there will be no middle ground. Then the only choice will be to adopt the extreme position: total shutdown. Too many Americans have squandered their options, acting crazy brave instead of heroically, so we all may have to pay the price for their disregard of Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

Letter to the Editor: Unity and Diversity is What Will Make America Great

Congress has enacted a number of civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. These statutes are as follows: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion and national origin); Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting sex discrimination); Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (prohibiting disability discrimination); Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting disability discrimination by public entities); and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (prohibiting age discrimination).

The courts have been slower than Congress but have made landmark decisions that have helped America become great—a work in progress. Unfortunately, the Robert’s court is poised to turn back the clock.

Making America truly great would not be a retreat to the past but a forward movement to an inclusive, diverse citizenship predicated on the ideal that all people are equal, that we should have an equal opportunity to reach our individual potential, and that this country is great only when it recognizes those principles.Continue reading “Letter to the Editor: Unity and Diversity is What Will Make America Great”

Passing It On

It’s likely that you’ve heard of pay it forward —the wonderful practice of doing an act of kindness for someone and having him or her return the favor by doing something kind for someone else. Popularized in the Kevin Spacey/Helen Hunt 2000 movie by that name, the practice has been resurrected during the pandemic. My nineteen-year-old grandson, who experienced it at the local McDonalds last week, was thrilled . . . as if it was a new wonder of the modern age. He was partly excited because the guy in front of him bought his $10 breakfast, whereas the women behind him only ordered a large Diet Coke. 

Then, two days ago, I took a screen shot of a short article by in a women’s magazine that lauded the benefits of volunteering and generosity. It claimed that research shows that people who help others tend to feel better and live longer. I’ve subscribed to this belief for decades, and currently I’ve been sewing masks like crazy to boost my immune system. I jest, although volunteering, keeping hard promises, and being kind does provide a lot of personal satisfaction. To promote this form of well-being among friends, I posted the screen shot on Facebook’s messaging service.

There was a missed call, followed by a text. “Nothing big. I just wanted to tell ya something.” I called back. My stylist, Brandy, was one of the folks who got my message. “I did something today because of you and for you,” she said. She continued, her voice animated. “I volunteered to be a poll worker for the election. Most of the usual workers are at the age most vulnerable to the virus. They need to stay home. I needed to step up.” I can’t know for certain about Brandy’s feelings, but I was tingling with happiness at her news. I did remind her about PPEs, and she said that she would wear a hazmat suit if required.

If acts of kindness are not needed now, then when?  As the article noted, it’s the perfect time to “give back, bounce back.”

“ALL” is a Four Letter Word

I have taught a class on ethics for police over the course of 36 years, at two different universities, and continue to teach the subject online. With absolute certainty, I can tell you that the vast majority of the students in my classes want to become police officers to help their communities, to help people. Whether white, black, brown, Latino, Asian, male or female, their answer to the question of “why become a police officer?” is the same.

Occasionally, a recent veteran of the armed forces wants to relive the combat high, but even those folks are few and far between. So what happens? Several dynamics are at play.
There are centuries of culture, supported by instructors’ war stories that undermine and negate the little bit of ethics offered in most police training.

As in low-level military combat, officers are trained for the worst and then wait and wait—their trigger finger honed and ready—while nothing dramatic happens. When trouble does start, they overreact.The U.S. military is over-producing weapons of war; it had to get rid of the surplus somewhere, and police departments were its target clientele.

The final dynamic is the nature of the job itself. After 9/11, police and firefighters were the nation’s heroes, and Criminal Justice programs witnessed big bumps in enrollment. Years later, those heroes are still fighting for medical care and other support. Today they find themselves viewed not as heroes, but as enemies of the people. When you are the victim, you want police assistance. When you are the perpetrator, police are the last people you want to see. Speeders curse the highway patrol officer who stops them in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities.

Police are asked to enforce unenforceable and unpopular laws. They are called to areas where the perception of crime—e.g., victimization of the elderly—far outstrips the reality of need. They serve communities with a history of police neglect and abuse, creating tension and hostility between residents and law enforcement, even when the police are there to help.
So, no, all police are not bad. Making claims of universal, widespread police corruption is not helpful. Do we need reform? You bet we do. Do we need to rein in costs and redirect money to community needs? Yes. Do we need leadership that can navigate the current critical situation rationally and effectively? Yes. Do we see that kind of leadership at the federal level? No.

We cannot go back to the status quo, but going forward should not negate the contribution of those officers who have committed themselves to the public good.

The Lie of Charter Schools

Many legislatures at the state and federal levels, claiming to be hell-bent on educational innovation, actually limit the people with the most educational experience. They thwart those who are the most knowledgeable about our students—the most committed to all children and their collective future. If they were sincere, they would increase funding for our public schools and decrease regulations, which stifle innovation that should be available to all our children. They should not turn education over to profiteers. When profit is the motive, the public good is not.

As bills authorizing charter schools make their way through various legislatures, I’m reminded of the negative consequences that the privatization of education can have on a society. A case in point is Cambodia, a small Southeast Asian country, which was scored on talent indicators such as education levels, vocational and technical skills, and the use of technology and social networks. It ranked 108 out of 118 countries overall, and last of the 13 nations in its region.

When I first worked in Cambodia in the 1990s, teachers had to moonlight selling cigarettes in nightclubs, or worse, so that they could survive on the small pay that they received. Many teachers got no pay at all. Cambodia’s economy and educational infrastructure had been devastated by the genocidal Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge—who allowed no education—and the assaults by U.S. B-52 bombers. Our bombers destroyed Buddhist pagodas, which provided education and literacy training. In the vacuum that followed the 1993 elections, Cambodia embarked on a program of privatizing state-owned enterprises. While this program did not officially include public education, it opened the door for every kind of entrepreneur to open a private (aka charter) school. These entrepreneurs came from everywhere. They came to make money. Education was not the priority. To the present day, funding for public education in Cambodia is inadequate and unfairly distributed; after-all, private schools had sprung up like mushrooms to relieve a corrupt government of its moral responsibility to provide universal education.

Worst of all is that this government dependency on unregulated private education has dramatically contributed to the bifurcation of Cambodian society into the haves and the have-nots—educating the haves, neglecting the have-nots. Further, the predominance of private schools has encouraged their students to migrate; creating a brain drain of many of Cambodia’s best and brightest.

What can charter schools do for America’s youth, her future? Nothing good!

To Sleep or not to Sleep

Bob’s chirp—staccato and loud enough to jar me from my stupor—was followed by her ritualistic head bobbing and a softer, rolling chirping. I lay there, eyes still closed, forcing myself to listen to her gentler song, trying to wake my brain and force myself back into full consciousness. Bob began singing again and playing with the assortment of toys that line the top of her large flight cage. Her play is less obsessive than it was right after Dave II died. Her song sounds content, even cheerful, even though she has now been twice widowed.

How easy it would be to turn over, tug the sheet over my head, and slip back into my catatonic state— a sure sign of depression brought on by boredom, anxiety over two of my daughters’ inexorable march toward divorce, and the daily bizarre, heinous behavior of the U.S. president. I’m also bothered by my left knee complaining every time I climb the stairs, complemented in its distress by my right ankle. More precisely, it’s my Achilles tendon, which acts up sans any obvious cause. Worse, my three-week South Beach Diet accomplished no results.

The papery skin on the right side of my face, on my cheek, has a pattern of fine lines They’ve been there for years, but as my skin becomes more fragile, I find them more noticeable and, thus, more disagreeable. So, too, the puffy bags under my eyes, the multiple dents on my nose from patches of sun-damaged skin being frozen off, and the offensive grooves above my upper lip. Saggy boobs that defy shape and loose skin on my body, which continues to shrink, are particularly unpleasant. Why can’t I just sleep? Dreamless sleep, preferably, seems like a reasonable idea.

And then my depressing thoughts drift into a vision of Kelli Ann.

A woman in late middle age had been battling cancer. When it went into remission, she started an evening program at the local career center to get an LPN degree. During her final semester, the cancer returned, but this time there was no reprieve; it was terminal. Did she pull the sheet over her head and go to bed? No. I attended Kelli Ann’s graduation, watched her glowing with pride and accomplishment as she joyfully received her diploma. Not long ago, six weeks after her graduation, we buried her. Her classmates were all there to offer their final farewells . . . and to give thanks for her inspiration.

I’m not going back to sleep. I’m going to give Bob a parakeet treat. I’m going to put my “Elect Elizabeth Warren” decal on my car bumper. I’m going out to do something positive.

Bras and Nylon Stockings

When I was growing up in the 1950s, girdles were the unseen uniform of girls and women. The devolution of Victorian corsets and bustles, girdles were the equivalent of society’s machinations to redefine feminine beauty. Body image anxieties were nothing new! Moreover, if your derrière was in need of more, not less, you could wear a padded girdle to round out your bottom and a padded bra to give you more cleavage. I myself received instructions from my older brothers to put Kleenex in my bras to make myself more attractive. The Miracle Bra was a national best seller. Eventually, Queen came out with the hit song “Fat Bottomed Girls” in 1978, and the societal requirement to wear a girdle began to fade away.

I drank the Kool-Aid. I wore the undergarments. I had bouts of anorexia. I was so concerned about saggy skin that I wore panty hose with my bathing suit. Crepey skin wasn’t my greatest concern. That anxiety was reserved for my Jewish nose and piano-stick calves. There were no padded nylons to give you shapely calves—the kind that my cheerleader girlfriends had in abundance. My mother and father, who had noses similar to mine, thought that I was just perfect “as is.” My mother was fond of saying that she married the man she loved and was happy, even with the same-shaped nose I inherited from her. But my younger sister, whose large nose bore no resemblance to theirs, had it bobbed at the initial surge of cosmetic surgery in the early 1960s. I was permanently pissed over the obvious preference they displayed toward my sister’s body image angst, even though my mother said that the surgery was required to assist her in finding a husband. They called it a “Shiksa preference”—the preference of Jewish men for blonde women with small noses. (I wonder if that is why I was attracted to blond men. For me, it was “Shkutzim preference.”)

I was spared worrying about growing horns until college. While visiting a friend in her dorm room, I met a young woman from Delaware who inquired about the origin of my maiden name, Gozansky. I explained that my ancestors were Eastern European Jews. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never met a Jewish person before. How do you hide your tail and horns?” Dumbstruck, I went home and looked up the anti-Semitic notion that Jews have tails and horns. According to Ophir Yarden, the current director of education of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and a senior lecturer in Jewish and Israel studies at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, “Folk beliefs about horns and big noses have served to demonize Jews—and even Jews themselves have not been exempt from distorted images of their bodies.” After that college incident, I laughed until I cried. I had no horns or tail, and I didn’t believe that other Jews did, either. However, I certainly had a big nose. There was a demeaning joke attached to that body part, too: Jews had big noses because the air was free. Unfortunately, there is no song glamorizing big noses.

Now I wear minimizer bras to flatten my chest. A vacation is no holiday if I have to wear a bra at all. There is no more Spandex in my closet, and my legs have been liberated from nylons (and pointy high-heeled shoes) for decades. My nose was bobbed at age fifty, and my neck was tightened and my eyebrows lifted for good measure. I occasionally still pinch my jaw to pull up the skin on my neck while looking in the mirror. I happily remind myself that, at my stage in life, I have sworn off more surgery. What’s the lesson here? Body image issues—whether influenced by ignorance and bias or by societal norms of beauty—are destructive to the soul, confining to the spirit, and downright uncomfortable. clipart